Take a simple concept — a copper chasing a robber — turn it into a game and you get Activision’s Keystone Kapers. Introduced in 1983, it was a solid hit for the company during the period when the Great Video Game Crash began decimating console industry giants like Atari in the West.
Garry Kitchen was the creative genius behind the game. By ’83, he was known in programming circles as the guy behind the incredibly successful Donkey Kong port for the Colecovision which was released in 1982 and had gone on to make the company millions.
Looking to move on from Coleco, Kitchen looked at a number of companies including Atari before settling on Activision. As he says in an article written in 1992 (but not published until very recently for 2600 Connection in 2011), he “liked Activision’s philosophy” in promoting the designer just as movies would feature writers in their credits. In his view, and as many others that joined the young company had also experienced for themselves, Activision put them front and center on the boxes and in the manuals — a far cry from what others such as Atari did for theirs back then.
The concept for Keystone Kapers’ 2D didn’t initially start off with a chase through a four story store called Southwicks. According to a small side box in the article linked above to 2600 Connection, early versions of Kitchen’s game involved the “cop scaling the side of a vertically scrolling building, chasing the Krook, who was dropping objects down on the Kop — chairs, bowling balls, etc.”. It went on to say that David Crane suggested a different approach similar to that of Pitfall! as a side scroller since the first approach hit a little too close to Donkey Kong and Crazy Climber. And so Keystone Kapers was born.
The manual, illustrated as the “Crime Buster’s Handbook” includes a short history on cops (and how they got that nickname) as well as Garry Kitchen offering hints on how to score big in his game. A short vignette puts players into the shoes of Officer Kelly answering the call to stop Harry Hooligan from getting away with robbing Southwick’s, painting the action with an early 20th century “cops and robbers” brush. There was also the customary Activision offer for a game patch rewarding high scorers who broke 35,000 points as members of “the Billy Club” after mailing in a photo of their accomplishment.
Kapers split the action across four floors accessed by one-way escalators and an elevator that moved on its own, going up and down, between all of the floors except for the roof (where you could get trapped if you weren’t careful…even Kitchen advised players to watch out for this in the manual).
Points were rewarded for how much time you had left when you caught Harry (which went up after catching him so many times) and for whatever loot (luggage, bags of money) was snagged along the way. A camera system (which kind of goes against that whole early 20th century thing) set up in the store also provided a radar, similar to the one used in Chopper Command in 1982, at the bottom of the screen allowing you to see where Harry is and plan your strategy.
After catching Harry, it was time to go after him again…but with a bit more difficulty thrown. At first, all Kelly will have to deal with simple obstacles like a bouncing beach ball or a cathedral radio that he can jump over for serious distance. Hitting either one of these robs him of precious seconds that he has to catch Harry.
Later, they’re joined by shopping carts and a flying biplane toy that he has to duck under to avoid getting nailed. He won’t lose any points if that hits him in the head — he’ll lose one of the precious lives he has left. If he runs out of time, that also erases another chance he has to see Harry behind bars. New lives were rewarded at every 10,000 points for a maximum of three in stock at any one time, but getting to those milestones was a challenge in and of itself.
If additional obstacles weren’t enough, the game starts speeding things up sending shopping carts zipping along the floor at the higher difficulty levels making that march to 35,000 even tougher to do. Even thirty years later, Keystone Kapers’ challenge reasonably holds up even if Activision doesn’t offer the patch anymore.
Today, you can try it out over at Virtual Atari or find the cart on the cheap on Ebay if you have an Atari 2600 that you want to fire up. It was also made available as a part of Microsoft’s Game Room for Xbox Live.
Keystone Kapers was one of those games that defined Activision’s early legacy boasting bright colors, neat sound effects, a solid scoring challenge, and easy to learn controls. It also followed that up with an impressively illustrated manual and a continuing focus on both its designer and the player. A great classic that makes chasing the bad guy a fun challenge.